By Rosie Mestel and Ben Harder
November 20, 2006
Such sensible advice is often repeated this time of year -- and if we actually followed it, there's little doubt it would help with weight-gain damage control during this season of endless treats.
But let's be realistic. Ask yourself: On Thursday, how likely are you to pile your 14-inch plate with roasted Brussels sprouts and salad, and take the mere, tiniest sliver of pie? Exercising moderation at Thanksgiving, with its groaning board of crispy-skinned meat, onion-sage stuffing, marshmallow- and brown-sugar-laden yams, home-stewed cranberries, and nuts and chocolates and other little crunchy things in platters all over the place, is a pretty tall order.
Maybe there's another way. Instead of practicing conscious, painful self-deprivation, what if one were to draw from the arcane experiments of appetite researchers, whose job it has been to find out what makes people unconsciously want to eat more -- or, for our purposes, less? We're talking crockery. Lighting. Sounds. The clothes you show up in at Aunt Millie's for the meal. Who shows up at Aunt Millie's for the meal. Set up these things just right and maybe you won't have to dwell on how much you're eating. In a sense, you'll have license to gorge -- the trick being you won't want to gorge quite as much.
By all means try the familiar, sage advice, but consider adding these quirkier tips from appetite experts to bolster your beat-the-bulge efforts.
Some disclaimers: These maneuvers aren't guaranteed to work, though all have some evidence to support them. Nor will they necessarily maximize your Thanksgiving enjoyment. Then again, is saying no to pie a barrel of laughs?
* Shrink your stomach. Starting today, try toning your stomach. No, not with crunches. It is, after all, a stretchy organ capable of impressive expansions and contractions (at rest it's the size of a fist, and expands to hold one or two liters when you eat or drink). Studies and anecdotal reports suggest that people who routinely consume large quantities of food have stomachs that can stretch tremendously: bulimics, binge eaters, people with blockages in food flow, individuals who indulge in the edgy, cult sport of speed-eating. Britain's Peter Dowdeswell, winner of dozens of world-eating records (1,300 baby eels in 13.7 seconds, 144 prunes in 24 seconds, to name a couple) once described the type of meal it took to satisfy him as 3 pounds of sausages, 5 pounds of mashed potatoes, half a cabbage, peas, gravy and (of course) dessert.
Turning the concept on its head, your aim this week is a stomach that stretches less. "You can shrink your stomach by only permitting a certain volume of food at each meal," says Dr. Joseph Risser, director of clinical research for Lindora Medical Clinics. Split your meals into smaller servings to be spread through the day, he suggests. If dining at a restaurant, "have them put aside half the meal before it's even served."
Three days of that kind of drill and your stomach may be in better shape to fight temptation on the big day.
* Fast before the feast. It's Thanksgiving morning. At this point, despite the fact that you'll be pigging at the trough later on, many dietitians and nutrition experts recommend a nice, sensible breakfast. Their reasoning: You won't be as ravenous, making it less likely that you'll go hog wild at the table. You also won't feel as though you've earned a license to indulge. Indeed, data from a registry of more than 5,000 men and women who've lost weight and managed to keep it off for years do show that most of them tend to eat breakfast.
But Thanksgiving is not like other days. More than any other, it is about eating food -- and the psychology of that fact cannot be overlooked. "Our hypothetical eater is going to overindulge anyway, so the presence or absence of the 'skipped breakfast' excuse is irrelevant," says Peter Herman, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Plus, even if the eater's not very hungry because he or she had breakfast, the meal will come at the appointed hour no matter what, and he or she will eat -- no matter what.
There's evidence supporting the morning-fasting notion. In a yet-to-be-published study, nutrition and psychology professor David Levitsky of Cornell University deprived some undergraduate volunteers of breakfast and monitored how much they ate for the rest of the day. The findings: Skipping breakfast did lead to slightly more calorie consumption later on, compared with days when they ate a hearty breakfast -- but not enough to make up the difference. By day's end, the skippers had eaten about 400 fewer calories overall.
* Avoid Viagra. Put drug-assisted sex on hold for the afternoon. In a recent study, a dose of Viagra's active ingredient, sildenafil, increased stomach capacity by an average of 16%. That suggests the erectile dysfunction drug might double as a treatment for people with "impaired gastric accommodation," the study's Belgian authors concluded. In the study, volunteers who ate after popping the pill had greater gastric relaxation -- which affects how much food the organ can hold -- for at least an hour. They were also slower to notice their stomachs filling up than did people who popped a placebo.
Let the good times roll another day.
* Don't drink a river before you eat. A common recommendation is to fill up with glasses of water before you sit down for the feast. But Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University, has found that drinking water has no influence on food intake. (Eating foods that are high in water content is another matter.)
In fact, notes Risser, thirst could reduce your food intake. In studies, parched rats refuse their chow, while hydrated rats tuck in. In humans, military studies show that troops eat less than usual when they're just mildly dehydrated. "When climbers like me are thirsty, we have no appetite," Risser says. Coming to the Thanksgiving table a bit thirsty might have a similar effect.
Don't overdo it -- and don't cut out water during Thanksgiving dinner itself, though. Study subjects who were deprived of fluid during one meal ate just as much as those who were not -- and they consumed more lubricating, caloric condiments like mayonnaise.
* Select your company with care. Sure, you'll have more fun with the friends and relatives you adore -- but you'll eat more too. Really want to cut down on the stuffing? "Eat Thanksgiving alone," says Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating" and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, which is devoted to figuring out why, what and how much we eat.
He's kidding. But the science is inescapable: Most people eat less when they're alone. This phenomenon (called "social facilitation" by those in the know) has been carefully quantified by scientists, such as John De Castro of Texas' Sam Houston State University, who have gone to great lengths to get at the numbers -- spying on people in coffee shops and pubs and measuring ice cream consumed in labs when people eat alone or in crowds. The bottom line: The bigger the crowd, the longer you'll linger at the table and the more you'll consume. Eating with just one other person leads to a 35% greater intake in calories. Expand the group to seven or more and that number climbs to 76% or higher.
But numbers don't tell the whole story. What you eat also depends on whom you eat with. Most people eat less in an uncomfortable setting. This could be why you don't eat much during a job interview lunch or on a first date with someone you're attracted to (this effect is seen more with women than with men). Dine with a hard-drinking pal and you'll imbibe more yourself, so easily influenced is the human species.
Perhaps it's time to reestablish relations with the Puritan branch of your family. Or maybe you should finally accept that invitation from the co-worker you don't especially like -- or go whole hog and snag a Thanksgiving invite to your boss' house?
* Choose your color scheme. This one's a long shot. But you might want to consider muted browns and restful greens for your tablecloth, plates and napkins. On the one hand, studies show that bright, stimulating colors make people eat more quickly. On the other -- you'll be done sooner. (It's no coincidence that many fast food restaurants go for red and yellow in their dining areas -- they want to get us in and then clear us out fast.) "It cuts both ways," Wansink says. "It almost cancels out."
Perhaps this is a place where Thanksgiving revelers can make a contribution to science. Try one strategy or the other -- and take careful notes of the result.
* Pick the right plates and glasses. The size and shape of crockery and glassware have a large effect on how much people eat.
Some of this has to do with our brain's natural tendency to focus on the height of objects rather than its width. Sip that beverage from a short, squat glass and you will drink more than if you drink it from a tall, skinny glass -- and your estimation of how much you drank will be shockingly inaccurate. Wansink's group showed this in an experiment with children at a New England summer camp: Teens given skinny glasses in a cafeteria poured themselves 5.5 ounces of beverage, whereas those given squat glasses took 9.6 ounces -- 74% more. Yet they estimated they'd only taken 7 ounces. (And this doesn't just apply to kids. Musicians at a Massachusetts jazz camp committed the same crime.) The lesson for the Thanksgiving table: Use really tall, skinny glasses.
Small plates and bowls and spoons are a must for the dinner table too -- again, because of optical illusions. Objects of the same size appear smaller when placed on a larger background, such as the behemoth dinner plates available in stores these days. In one notable study, Wansink's lab invited a passel of nutrition professors and students to an "ice cream social." Little did they know that they were guinea pigs. Some were given a 17-ounce bowl, others a 34-ounce bowl. Scoop sizes varied too. Cameras were secretly rolling.
The result: These nutrition-savvy guests served themselves 31% more when presented with larger bowls, a 127-calorie difference. When big bowls were paired with big scoops, the damage was even worse: 57% more.
So adorn the festive table with small plates and serving spoons -- perhaps Aunt Millie's pretty (and smaller) antique china, crafted in the days before the invention of the mega-plate. "The bird's not going to fly away. You can go back for seconds," says Milton Stokes, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Assn. "Do we have to use the plates that are the size of Texas?"
* Dress carefully. Formal or casual? That's your choice. Make it a bright orange prison jumpsuit for all we care. Just make sure it's a tight bright orange prison jumpsuit. Though there is a dearth of hard data on this point, an investigation at a Midwestern jail showed that prisoners gained between 20 and 25 pounds during their average stay of six months, even though they had opportunity to exercise, access to visitors and the food was unappetizing. When questioned after release, they pointed a finger at the loose jumpsuits they'd worn during their stay -- accusing the slackness, day in and day out, of failing to give them feedback on their paunch.
Evidence for a tight-clothes effect also comes from a survey of 322 dieters, more than half of whom reported that clothing snugness is a major way they gauge their progress. On Thanksgiving, "one of my members wears her most form-fitting pants with zipper and buttons," says Weight Watchers support group leader Lori Fusaro of Culver City. "When she overeats, she can feel the stomach starting to push on the waistband."
Doesn't that sound like fun? Maybe not. But it beats some of the other strategies Fusaro has encountered over the years -- such as the member who drank a gallon of prune juice before the festive meal ("she had a horrible time") and the one who canceled Thanksgiving altogether.
* Turn up the lights. "The brighter the light, the more aware you are of what you eat," says Nanette Stroebele, a psychology researcher at the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado at Denver. It's kind of like having a spotlight shone on you. Warm light, however, releases your inhibitions, relaxes you, makes you linger longer at the table, grab another dollop of mashed potatoes -- and oh, sure, why not some more stuffing, it's so good -- and pour another glass of wine. That's why high-end restaurants are dim (studies show you'll linger for dessert and other expensive goodies), while the move-'em-along fast-food places are bright.
And lest you think it's the quality of the food that makes the dimly lighted trattoria folks linger and eaters at the glaring-bright fast-food joint flee -- think again. Scientists have tested this. The difference is seen even if the same menu is served in different settings.
So if you want to eat less, turn the Thanksgiving table, if not the whole world, into a brightly lighted stage.
* Stock the groaning board -- out of arm's reach. There's a lazy kind of grazing that human beings do: If the food's right there in front of us, we'll eat it. If we have to get up and walk 2 yards for it, we'll think twice. In another sneaky experiment from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, secretaries were slyly supplied with Hershey's kisses -- in dishes placed on the corner of their desks or 6 feet away. Each night, the Food and Brand lab pixies would sneak around the office, counting the numbers of candies eaten and replenishing the dishes. When candies were placed just 6 feet away, "people ended up eating four candies rather than nine candies a day," Wansink says. "That's 120 calories less a day -- or 12 pounds of candy a year. Amazing."
The lesson from this for Thursday: Use a bull's-eye approach to laying on the feast. Put the healthiest stuff front-and-center and make people get up to get the most scale-damaging dishes. Same logic applies to drinks: Water on the table, cola in the fridge. Or simply put all the food on a separate table. It will keep people from eating reflexively when they're no longer hungry.
* Eat in stony silence. We never said this article was about maximizing pleasure. It's just a fact that any distraction -- mirth, merriment, football on the TV -- will make you less mindful of just how much pie you're shoveling down. Even listening to an NPR special on the linguistic origins of the word "turkey" will incite you to thoughtlessly eat more of the bird.
Insistent upon music? Bear in mind a 1985 study in which diners were exposed to different tempos of music -- and chewed at a rate of 4.4 bites per minute when exposed to fast music, and 3.83 bites per minute when exposed to slow music. Other studies have shown that loud, raucous rock music increases the number of drinks people downed in a bar, and that fast music incited faster drinking.
But again, we're faced with the flip side: Slow, serene music slows down the feast but people will linger longer, giving them more time to eat prodigiously. We'd imagine that these dueling effects are a dilemma for restaurant owners. For dieters though, it appears that silence is golden.
Insistent upon conversation? If you must talk, make it a political debate or something else touchy -- embryonic stem cells, perhaps. For many, studies show, there's nothing like tension for dampening the appetite.
* Eat with a blindfold on -- and maybe a peg on your nose. Studies show that the sight and smell of food messes with our physiology and make us feel hungrier. We salivate, of course, but it goes beyond that. Obese people will start secreting extra insulin at the mere sight and smell of a steak being grilled. People presented with appetizing food will experience surges of dopamine -- a chemical associated with pleasure -- in the brain.
* Don't clear the table. Here's another from the wild folks at Cornell: A messy table scattered with bone-filled platters, empty glasses and other detritus from the meal is evidence of past gorging and will make you eat less. Aunt Millie may not like it, but she can't deny the science of it.
To properly explore this phenomenon, Wansink and his team invited 53 students to a party at a sports bar one Super Bowl Sunday, and provided a free chicken-wing feast for all. Then they had a quiet word with the waitresses, requesting that they bus only half of the tables.
The results? Students sitting at the tables where the bones piled up ate 28% less than those whose tables were regularly cleared. Those at spiffy tables had absolutely no idea that they were eating more. "If you asked them as they left the bar that night how many wings they ate they'd say, 'four,' " -- even though they'd actually eaten more like seven," Wansink says. "There isn't the reminder -- once the evidence is gone, it's gone."
* Dye all your food the same color. Sound nasty? An alternative is to limit your options. The human species craves variety, for obvious reasons: Back in hunter-gatherer days, eating a wide range of nuts and berries and animals was probably good for making sure you got all the vital nutrients you needed. These days, it's why we can pig out so impressively at a buffet.
Studies by Rolls of Penn State have shown (for example) that people presented with four items of food ate 60% more at a sitting than when they were just presented with one item, and that merely offering three different shapes of pasta causes a 15% uptick in intake. Ever wonder why they color M&Ms different hues? We haven't actually asked Mars Inc., but one Cornell study showed that people presented with 10 M&M hues ate 43% more than those who were given a bag containing seven hues.
The lesson here is to skip the dishes you don't care about and concentrate on the special foods you don't have at other times of the year. There's a limit on how many marshmallow- and brown-sugar-smothered yams you can eat. Really, there is. If someone published a "marshmallow yam diet" -- yams and nothing else -- it probably would work.
* Take a tip from the Romans. No, we aren't suggesting you sneak out the back periodically to stick a feather down your throat. Rather, that perhaps you should recline during the meal and thereafter -- on your left side. Scientists have tested the rate of stomach emptying and the rapidity with which hunger returns in people sitting upright or lying down sideways after eating a "soup and oil" meal. The bottom line: Hunger returns sooner if you're sitting up -- perhaps because gravity gets the food moving out of the stomach faster.
The difference between the two postures could take hours to show up, however -- by which time no end of grazing and gorging is likely to have taken place. Might be one to discourage the late-night refrigerator raids, however.
* Purge. Now we're kidding. Don't do that. It's not healthy. This is Thanksgiving, a day for feasting. These quirky tips (and more conventional ones) may fail you in the face of temptation on this day. If they do, don't beat yourself up about it, Wansink says. "This is one of the greatest days in America," he says. "Enjoy yourself, be thankful you can eat, be thankful that you've got food."
Nor will one day of excess -- one -- destroy your waistline. What matters is what you do the other 364.
Wait. There's Christmas. Make that 363.
Uh, and New Year's.
Make that ...
Times staff writer Rosie Mestel can be reached at email@example.com. Ben Harder is a freelancer.
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